Convenient mediocrity

“Convenient mediocrity.” I mentioned it in an earlier post, and while it can be found in use here and there, it is not (yet) a common phrase, even if it is a remarkably common property. What it means (for my purposes here, anyway) is maintaining lowered standards because higher ones take too much effort. More specifically, it means accepting lower quality as long as it’s in a cool, popular format.

I used it in terms of photography, and so we’ll examine that aspect in detail first. Really, not all that long ago when digital wasn’t an option, photographers had a variety of films to choose from, with distinctive color palettes and behaviors, and many of the professionals (and a lot of serious amateurs) would get so anxious about quality that their film would remain in the refrigerator until the day of the shoot, to keep the emulsion from degrading and thus affecting the colors it produced. There were portrait films and scenic films, high and low contrast options, fine grain and coarse, and naturally, a variety of ISO ratings to fit within the lighting conditions. I personally had four different preferred films, and my overall workhorse (Fuji Provia 100F) was usually shot at a third-stop overexposure because that produced the effects I liked. This says nothing about pushing films, varying developers and chemical preferences, filters, and on and on.

And virtually all of that is completely gone now. But digital has not replaced it at all – in fact, digital (despite countless assurances to the contrary in the early days) doesn’t even cover a moderate portion of these traits and behaviors. Digital color is expressed, still, in 32-bit format – each color has a value of 0 through 255, which isn’t a huge range, and has been in use for decades. Meanwhile, the digital sensors within the cameras have a fixed color register to them – they cannot be exchanged like one would exchange films, when switching from scenic photography to a wedding, for instance. The myth still persists that “you can digitally alter the color to your liking,” which is true only insofar as a) you stay within the 32-bit range, and b) the camera captures the color differentiation and details that you needed in the first place. If there were subtleties of foliage, delicate colors of a leaf for instance, that the sensor simply could not distinguish or differentiate, then the only ‘digital’ thing you can do to reproduce them would be to paint them in by hand, because the digital image has nothing to work with. The best example is shadow detail – if the camera didn’t get it, no amount of lightening or contrast adjustment will bring it back.

breaker at Nags Head NC
I have yet to see a digital sensor that can render a sky in as rich color as my preferred slide films, noticeable even when it’s been reduced to 32-bit color for digital use. But, producing a deep blue sky means it’s terrible at skin tones. The digital compromise, however, is to become mediocre at both.
32-bit is a rather narrow range, significantly less than any contemporary films. Slide films were made to be viewed with a light source dozens of times brighter than anything a computer monitor can produce, so a much wider range of color intensity is possible. This says nothing of the subtleties of palette, an the idea that the green layer of emulsion, for instance, interacts in different ways with the red and blue layers, giving the ability to selectively produce better foliage images (Fuji Velvia) or, alternately, to bring out much nicer skin tones in portraiture (Fuji NPS/NPH.)

This is the most noticeable hit, to me. I have yet to see a digital sensor that comes even close to a decent portrait film – most skin tones in digital are horrible, and if you want to see the difference, pull up any magazine from the 90s and compare it to any today.

And then there’s resolution. There is no comparison between pixel count and what a film produces, since film grain is variable and, at times, microscopic, not to mention that color films have three layers of grain that produces gradients throughout the image instead of a fixed number of dots. Photographers that wanted the best enlargements used medium or large format films, which (comparatively) shrunk the film grain down for any given enlargement size, since a larger negative/slide meant the image would not have to be enlarged as much.

I don’t mean to harp on this, but it’s necessary to illustrate the change, because while these factors were all in routine use, and even obsessively pursued, by photographers just over a decade ago, they were dismissed almost entirely when digital arrived. Why? Because digital is immediate gratification, even when the results are poor. Plus probably a degree of, “this is new technology and therefore cool.” The only significant advancement was not having to develop the images, and it’s hard to believe that lead time is supposed to be such a huge factor in photography that the decline in quality is justified by the immediacy, but this is assuming that factors are being weighed rationally and objectively. Humans aren’t particularly known for this, even when we believe it’s our strongest quality.

All of this has been referring to the DSLRs, camera bodies ranging from prosumer use to full professional – the idea of a camera phone departs these considerations by miles. Camera phones produce quality just a hair better than the Polaroid cameras that people abandoned in the 80s due to their horrendous results. But, a Polaroid wasn’t able to be held out so easily one-handed to do a poorly-composed and remarkably pointless self-portrait – isn’t technology wonderful?

I’ve ranted about smutphones before, but think about it. A few years back when “land lines” were the norm, we had advertisements about how you could hear a pin drop over a provider’s phone service; now, we’re lucky when we get 80% of the words uttered. I never talk to one of my friends when she’s home, because she has almost no cell service where she fucking lives! Had cell phones come first, we’d be falling all over ourselves when land lines came out, promising no possibility of dropped calls and remarkable clarity – for a third of the monthly fees, too, with no contracts or shenanigans to get you to buy a new phone. Seriously, perspective counts for a lot.

I’m sure you’ve seen the ‘memes’ online about how this little touchscreen phone can do all the jobs of this phone, and that camera, and this video camera, and this calculator, and that tape recorder, and so on – all this individual technology from a few decades ago. And yes, believe me, I don’t knock technology – I was thrilled to get my first TV with a remote. But in reality, a smutphone doesn’t do all of those things. It mimics them, doing each and every task half-ass, but unable to reproduce the quality of any one of them (well, except for the calculator – we’ll give them that.)

What this convenience means, however, is that their usage in all of these manners is frivolous – used because we can, but not because we should. The vast majority of the stuff produced through these phones – and yes, I’m including actual telephone conversations, as well as texts – is mediocre at best, strictly from the standpoint of content. We will never use the words enrich, or enlighten, or inform or educate or much of anything else related, when describing these offerings. At best, we can say they entertain – if our standards of entertainment are remarkably low.

But now, here’s the part I haven’t quite come to terms with. There have always been mediocre efforts out there – the amateur photographers, the people recording their music on cassette recorders, the cheesy home videos done with a few friends [*cough* What? Nothing. I don’t know what you’re talking about.] But at the same time, there remained the professional skills, and equipment, and services – no amount of camcorder-wielding relatives replaced the wedding portrait photographers, nor did they change the equipment that was available. But somehow, a new set of standards has arisen, or indeed befallen, and now it’s next to impossible to pursue the methods that provide the highest quality. Film developing is remarkably hard to accomplish anymore; music cannot be found outside of the dynamic range that MP3s can handle.

I recognize how ‘popular demand’ works, causing labs to close down because no one needs to have film developed anymore. What I don’t understand is how the reduction in quality was somehow justified by the convenience, the reason the labs had to close in the first place. Why is there no demand for portraits that no digital image can touch? Why does my digital voicemail sound worse that the little cassettes I used to use? How come every phone conversation now contains awkward gaps and pauses from transmission delay? This isn’t advancement in any way, and I’m confused as to why so many people think we’ve improved something.